CJ Online Review | König, Saints and Symposiasts

Posted with permission:

Saints and Symposiasts: the Literature of Food and the Symposium in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Culture. By Jason König. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xii + 417. Hardcover, £70.00/$115.00. ISBN 978-0-521-88685-7.

Reviewed by Simon Swain, University of Warwick

This book explores how “telling stories about eating and drinking … was a way of conjuring up idealized images of community and identity (or in some cases images of aberrant or transgressive community)” (6). The specific focus is the literature of the Roman period. For despite recent work on Plutarch and Athenaeus, further progress needs to be made “with reference not only to the philosophical table-talk tradition, the main aim of Part I, but also to the novelistic and satirical prose literature of the Roman empire,” which is the focus of Part II. A good part of this focus and undoubtedly a strength of the book is the inclusion of Christian texts and their “function as narratives” and the “ideals and provocations” they dangle before their readers (14–15).

König turns to texts in Ch. 2, starting with Plutarch’s interesting prefaces in the Symposiaka and then does what he can to dignify Athenaeus. As he notes, Athenaeus has suffered from a feeling that he is not very good. One can counter this by suggesting that his miscellanist/encyclopedist skills were “highly prestigious” to contemporaries (but that does not answer the objection). Miscellanism certainly has “dynamic potential,” but we might ask what proportion of literature did it form and how far did major authors go in for it (cf. p. 227: “these were not necessarily texts with an enormously wide readership”)? König theorizes his discussion in two ways. First, that the shuffling of quotations is a mode of engaging directly with dead authors. This is all overdone. Next Bakhtin and Todorov are invoked; but as he admits, for symposiac-miscellanist literature (as opposed to the novel) there isn’t much to this. With Baktin’s “carnival” König is on safer ground which features profitably later.

So to Plutarch (Ch. 3). König’s focuses on how Plutarch establishes “ideals of coherence and community,” noting that the “chaotic, miscellaneous” material makes it difficult to sum up the Symposiaka. The main point is the freedom of conversations to compete with one another. He draws on Books 2–3 as examples. He follows this with a useful discussion of the vocabulary used to engage with texts and authors. Ongoing civic commitment to banquets attested through inscriptions is nicely related to Plutarch’s own information on the occasions of his dinners.

Ch. 4 moves to the Deipnosophists, “a difficult text to generalise about.” Recourse is had to Bakhtin—and not persuasively because the “tension between monologic authority and unfinalisable multiplicity of perspective” takes us way beyond Athenaeus.

“Studying early Christian feasting is a difficult business”: so begins Ch. 5. Some may find surprising the suggestion of “a very specific engagement with Greco-Roman sympotic writing” in Luke; indeed Luke’s Jesus is a “sympotic sage, philosophising in Platonic manner.” The Letter of Aristeas and its banqueting scene is cited, but this is a different, Hellenizing beast. The Gospels, like any text, have conversation near food—but might one say, So what? Clement of Alexandria is taken as an example of someone who shows Christian aversion to symposiac literature while being very much aware of eating in company. Given his well-heeled audience, one might conclude that his presentation of what constitutes good taste and conversation at dinner is more typical than what we find in symposiaka. Ch. 6 bravely tackles Methodius’ Peri hagneias and indeed has some interesting discussion of Platonic and other literary reflexes in the text. Ch. 7 moves forward to the 4th c. Christians who were not tempted into exploring their differences through symposium literature. Here as elsewhere in the book we get into meals in the absence of literature. Unluckily Julian’s Symposium (Caesars) does not deliver for König’s purposes and is more or less ignored. By contrast Macrobius (rightly) merits a whole chapter (8). He is “difficult to summarise”; but König does a good job exploring the nostalgic “performance of Roman identity” in the Saturnalia and the author’s distaste for “competitive and speculative speech.”

Part II looks at transgressive texts on eating and the way they “blur boundaries between high and low culture,” beginning with a selection of items from the Tavern of the Seven Sages at Ostia to the figure of the parasite in Lucian and Alciphron, who according to König “offers us self-reflexive images of our own literary desire.” Ch. 10 takes us to dining in the Greek and Roman novels, with many observations on the deformation of food and eating in these texts, especially Apuleius. König is here a little over-dependent on somewhat humorless theoretical perspectives. Ch. 11 on the “apocryphal acts of the apostles” contains important readings of material alien to most classicists, including comparison with the Greek novels. But to say ascetic apostles advertise “the transgressive, shocking quality of the new Christian faith” pushes things too far, for these works were written when Christianity was well established or official and its shock-value had largely worn off. Ch. 12 takes the discussion forward to the hagiographical writings of the 4th and 5th centuries.

In sum König’s book is impressively scholarly with a massive and read bibliography. It is impressively wide-ranging at the cost of being in some ways a book of two parts between symposiac literature and literature that mentions food or its rejection.

Community Funded Ancient Greek?

Tim Parkin just sent this in (tip o’ the pileus and all that) … from Neokosmos:

Community involvement will save dwindling programs like Ancient Greek says Professor K.O Chong-Gossard.
The University of Melbourne Ancient Greek professor says although class number are dwindling, Ancient Greek is still necessary and relevant to our society when you factor in community interest.
“[Class sizes are] still small for university standards,” he tells Neos Kosmos.
“I think that we have a lot of support outside of the university to keep the programs going and I think that the future of classics in Australia will be where university programs tap into the community to continue”.
With universities feeling the pinch from a lack of funding from the Federal government, smaller classes will be the first to go in an attempt to make higher education more profitable.
The Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victory has been running small ancient classes for a couple of years and cater to the non-university crowd.
Yet, while community involvement is paramount, professor Chong-Gossard sees industry involvement as a new way of tapping into the higher education program.
The American born professor sees a vast array of students from different faculties pick up the subject that later on creates lasting connections.
“I have students who had done double degrees in things like biochemistry, economics, the law and they always say that they love coming to ancient Greek and Latin classes because they feel human, they get tired from doing numbers and memorise formulas and they really enjoy being able to talk about the Iliad, it is something beautiful for a change and to socialise with the class,” he says.
Critical thinking is a major part of learning an ancient language, and invariably affects how someone tackles a problem whether it be in business or medicine, says Professor Chong-Gossard.
“We offer not only this ability to read carefully and read critically as opposed to reading quickly and uncritically but also the opportunity to engage with things that are interesting and it does open up the mind,” he says.
He believes many businessmen in have been prepared for their jobs by learning Ancient Greek not only for the sake of knowing a vast vocabulary but also for tackling problems critically and talking “intelligently about something that has more than one point of view”. […]

An interesting idea which might actually work in certain locales; not sure if we want to set a precedent, though, for whether a program survives or not based on community funding (come to the Classics bake sale!).

Minoans Were Genetically European

This one is filling my box in various forms … here’s a UWashington press release via PhysOrg:

DNA analysis is unearthing the origins of the Minoans, who some 5,000 years ago established the first advanced Bronze Age civilization in present-day Crete. The findings suggest they arose from an ancestral Neolithic population that had arrived in the region about 4,000 years earlier.

The British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the early 1900’s named the Minoans after a legendary Greek king, Minos. Based on similarities between Minoan artifacts and those from Egypt and Libya, Evans proposed that the Minoan civilization founders migrated into the area from North Africa. Since then, other archaeologists have suggested that the Minoans may have come from other regions, possibly Turkey, the Balkans, or the Middle East.

Now, a team of researchers in the United States and Greece has used mitochondrial DNA analysis of Minoan skeletal remains to determine the likely ancestors of these ancient people.

Mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of cells, contain their own DNA, or genetic code. Because mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mothers to their children via the human egg, it contains information about maternal ancestry.

Results published May 14 in Nature Communications suggest that the Minoan civilization arose from the population already living in Bronze Age Crete. The findings indicate that these people probably were descendents of the first humans to reach Crete about 9,000 years ago, and that they have the greatest genetic similarity with modern European populations.

Dr. George Stamatoyannopoulos, University of Washington professor of medicine and genome sciences, is the paper’s senior author. He believes that the data highlight the importance of DNA analysis as a tool for understanding human history.

“About 9,000 years ago,” he noted, “there was an extensive migration of Neolithic humans from the regions of Anatolia that today comprise parts of Turkey and the Middle East. At the same time, the first Neolithic inhabitants reached Crete.”

“Our mitochondrial DNA analysis shows that the Minoan’s strongest genetic relationships are with these Neolithic humans, as well as with ancient and modern Europeans,” he explained.

“These results suggest the Minoan civilization arose 5,000 years ago in Crete from an ancestral Neolithic population that had arrived in the region about 4,000 years earlier,” he said. “Our data suggest that the Neolithic population that gave rise to the Minoans also migrated into Europe and gave rise to modern European peoples.”

Stamatoyannopoulos, who directs the UW Markey Molecular Medicine Center and who formerly headed the UW Division of Medical Genetics in the Department of Medicine, added, “Genetic analyses are playing in increasingly important role and predicting and protecting human health. Our study underscores the importance of DNA not only in helping us to have healthier futures, but also to understand our past.”

Stamatoyannopoulos and his research team analyzed samples from 37 skeletons found in a cave in Crete’s Lassithi plateau and compared them with mitochondrial DNA sequences from 135 modern and ancient human populations. The Minoan samples revealed 21 distinct mitochondrial DNA variations, of which six were unique to the Minoans and 15 were shared with modern and ancient populations. None of the Minoans carried mitochondrial DNA variations characteristic of African populations.

Further analysis showed that the Minoans were only distantly related to Egyptian, Libyan, and other North African populations. The Minoan shared the greatest percentage of their mitochondrial DNA variation with European populations, especially those in Northern and Western Europe.

When plotted geographically, shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variation was lowest in North Africa and increased progressively across the Middle East, Caucasus, Mediterranean islands, Southern Europe, and mainland Europe. The highest percentage of shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variation was found with Neolithic populations from Southern Europe.

The analysis also showed a high degree of sharing with the current population of the Lassithi plateau and Greece. In fact, the maternal genetic information passed down through many generations of mitochondria is still present in modern-day residents of the Lassithi plateau.

Here’s the abstract from Nature, for those of you who like genetechy stuff:

The first advanced Bronze Age civilization of Europe was established by the Minoans about 5,000 years before present. Since Sir Arthur Evans exposed the Minoan civic centre of Knossos, archaeologists have speculated on the origin of the founders of the civilization. Evans proposed a North African origin; Cycladic, Balkan, Anatolian and Middle Eastern origins have also been proposed. Here we address the question of the origin of the Minoans by analysing mitochondrial DNA from Minoan osseous remains from a cave ossuary in the Lassithi plateau of Crete dated 4,400–3,700 years before present. Shared haplotypes, principal component and pairwise distance analyses refute the Evans North African hypothesis. Minoans show the strongest relationships with Neolithic and modern European populations and with the modern inhabitants of the Lassithi plateau. Our data are compatible with the hypothesis of an autochthonous development of the Minoan civilization by the descendants of the Neolithic settlers of the island.

… and just to make it more exciting, the article itself is free and can be downloaded from the above link! I suspect this study is going to spark a bit of discussion …

Classical Words of the Day